* Iron ore imports 1.069 bln T vs 1.064 bln T in 2018
* Dec imports 101.27 mln T vs 90.65 mln T Nov - Rtrs calculation
* Shipments from big miners seen increasing in 2020 - analysts
By Min Zhang and Tom Daly
BEIJING, Jan 14 (Reuters) - China’s iron ore imports rose 0.47% in 2019 from a year earlier, hovering below their all-time annual peak, fuelled by strong demand at steel mills and a second-half recovery in shipments from big miners after disruptions earlier in the year.
The world’s top steel producer brought in 1.069 billion tonnes of iron ore in 2019, rising from 1.064 billion tonnes a year earlier, data from the General Administration of Customs showed on Tuesday. The record remains 2017’s 1.075 billion tonnes.
In December, purchases of the steelmaking ingredient surged 11.7% from a month earlier to 101.27 million tonnes, according to Reuters calculations based on the customs data - the highest monthly import level in 27 months.
The jump in iron ore imports came despite shipments from big miners being cut in the first half of 2019, when a tailings dam collapsed at a Brazilian mine while a tropical cyclone hit miners in west Australia.
“Purchases from non-mainstream suppliers increased amid soaring iron ore prices,” said Wu Shiping, analyst with Tianfeng Futures, noting smaller mines in Brazil and Australia and countries including South Africa and India increased shipments.
Prices for benchmark iron ore futures on the Dalian Commodity Exchange soared almost 140% in 2019, squeezing profit margins at mills across China that were already hurt by slowing economic growth and a bruising trade war with the United States.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s move to beef up stimulus projects to avoid a sharper economic slowdown means robust demand from a resilient property market and the infrastructure sector, helping to boost iron ore imports.
“Many construction activities will even last till the Lunar New Year eve,” Wu Shiping said, referring to the traditional week-long holiday season that is set to bring a broad industry closedown from Jan. 24 this year.
Utilisation rates at 247 mills across China stood at 77.6% last week, data tracked by Mysteel consultancy showed.
With Brazil’s Vale SA resuming operations at some mines and other big miners increasing production, analysts and market participants expect a rise in overall iron ore supply this year. (Reporting by Min Zhang and Tom Daly; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)